Chapter Sixteen: Grinder

The Warscream's bridge was a steady hum of noise, mostly from the glowing figures of krogan-shaped VIs speaking to officers. There were a rough mix of species on the bridge, some krogan but also a number of turians, salarians, asari, and several humans as well. The Blood Pack couldn't be picky when it came to starship crew. They had no trouble tossing aside varren and vorcha in battle, but they were useless at actually directing a warship. And not enough krogan showed an interest in astrogation or applied algebra these days.

So Wyrlock Kruge, Captain of the Warscream and commander of a sizable Blood Pack strike force, tolerated the non-krogan who moved and maintained his ships with admirable patience. He also tolerated the steady progress of his assault teams and their allies with the same; after all, these were dug-in ticks he was dealing with, and if the visual data being relayed back was accurate, they had at least one Urdnot among the mercs protecting them. Not to mention they couldn't just use flamers or missile launchers if they wanted T'Soni alive.

Also, he had to be patient because a furious outburst at how long it was taking might anger the thing towering over his bridge crew. The Scrin Mastermind was massive, and it stood with worrying serenity in the center of the bridge, where Kruge would have been sitting if Saren had not ordered him to bring the crystal beasts with him.

No one looked at the Mastermind as it stood still and quiet. No one wanted to draw its attention. They had all heard the rumors of what had happened at the Citadel, and the reports that a creature like this could seize control of any of them instantly if it had the inclination. But the Scrin seemed to show no interest in anything around it, as far as Kruge could determine. It simply stood, slowly swaying back and forth, the gemstone eyes on the front of its bulbous body focusing on nothing in particular.

Damned creepy.

Down below in the cargo hold, the other Mastermind was regularly ferrying Scrin troops onto the ship to augment the Blood Pack arriving via boarding shuttles. It couldn't get them inside the Prothean wreck for some reason; Saren himself had warned Kruge that the Scrin weren't be able to get past Prothean-built structures. Otherwise Kruge would have just ordered the Masterminds to envelop the scientists by teleporting troops in from every direction.

"Seventh Pack reporting," one of the VI images growled on his left flank. Kruge's left eye turned toward it, and he nodded. "Heavy losses while advancing up parallel corridors. Large numbers of mines and traps. Estimate they will reach the Prothean ship's bridge in eight minutes."

"How many left?" Kruge asked.

"No casualties among the krogan contingent. Seventeen vorcha losses. Nine Disintegrator losses. One Intruder lost. No Ravager casualties. Thirty-two percent of Buzzers lost."

"Order them to slow down," Kruge said. "Check for traps while advancing. Minimize further casualties. We'll need their numbers when we pin T'Soni on the bridge."

"Orders relayed," the VI replied, and Kruge exhaled. He turned back toward the data feeds from the other units, and paced between each image, deliberately cutting across the field of view of the Mastermind as he did so. No reaction.

"Frigates?" Kruge asked after a few seconds.

"No reports of viable secondary ingress points," replied another VI. "Hull damage appears superficial. Drone scouting within damaged hull sections report no hull breaches allowing internal access. Launching hatches are sealed and inoperable."

"Have them keep searching," Kruge said, and snorted in annoyance. He pushed that emotion down; annoyance led to anger, and anger led to rash decisions. Rashness could lead to boldness and decisive victory, but in Kruge's four centuries he had seen boldness lead to defeat and ruin just as often.

"Radiation spike!" called one of the bridge crew, an asari. "Definitely a faster-than-light transition."

"How big?" Kruge demanded, turning toward her. "And where is it?"

"Radiation output is small. Frigate or light freighter at best," the sensor officer replied.

The local hologram in the CIC section of the bridge updated with an approximate location: about five light minutes out. Kruge scowled.

"Get me a picture of that area of space," he said. "I want to know what's out there." Whoever it was had been in-system at least long enough to see what was happening. If they were Citadel military or civilian they would call for help. If they were merc, pirate, or scavenger they might hide and look for scraps to scavenge once the Blood Pack were done. Either way, they weren't an immediate threat, and Kruge expected that he would have finished his mission long before the Citadel mustered an appropriate military response. Still, he wanted to know what he was-

"Resolution complete. The picture is blurry, but-" the asari paused. "Onscreen."

A hologram appeared of a blocky ship, long and gradually tapering, with a pair of long, blocky engines on the port and starboard sides. Kruge froze as he saw the ship's shape, and recognized the design philosophy it embodied: turian blade-like structure coupled with GDI brick-shape.

There was only one known ship with that profile.

"Radiation spike, one hundred kilometers out!" shouted the sensor officer.

"Got thermal spikes. Weapons fire, single-ship launches, GARDIAN!" called the weapons officer. A pair of seconds passed. "I've got an ion stream! Ion cannons firing!"

"All ships!" Kruge shouted, pulling up his command frequency. "Engage and destroy the Normandy! Repeat, engage and destroy the Normandy!"

First blood was mutual: it went to both the GDS Normandy and the Blood Pack frigate Gutbleeder less than three seconds after the former burst out of its mass effect sheath and into slower-than-light speeds. The Blood Pack frigate was ahead by about forty kilometers, heading in the opposite direction. Respective velocities meant both craft were whipping past one another, flicking into knife-range for only a heartbeat, but both ship's computers fired their GARDIAN batteries as they passed.

Normandy's EVA fired every laser facing the Blood Pack ship. Dorsal, port, and keel batteries sent short pulses into the passing enemy frigate, slicing into armor plating and boiling away sensors, hull, and thermal vents. Gutbleeder's VI returned fire with its own facing GARDIANs, and while it was skilled enough at the task, it was only a VI and was tasked with a thousand other duties at the same time, and thus its calculations on hitting two high-speed objects with multiple laser beams while they passed with only a couple of milliseconds' firing windows were imprecise. One GARDIAN beam missed the Normandy's hull by millimeters; the other two slashed across the GDI ship's hull and boiled plating, blinding several sensors. A lucky shot sliced straight through the port GARDIAN power conduits, and it went dark.

"Well that's not a good start," Joker muttered as they screamed past. A quartet of bangs shot through the hull, faintly shaking the bridge, and the CIC lit up with the Orca gunships coming around and chasing the Normandy. Joker's eyes flicked over the sensor display, tracking all eleven hostile targets in the battlespace as the frigate dove toward the Prothean hulk.

"Commander, where am I dropping you?" he called as the massive dreadnought zoomed closer. Ion fire ripped past at something, and an Orca zipped over the top of the frigate less than two hundred meters out, its guns blazing at a Blood Pack fighter. The Orca vaguely resembled its atmospheric incarnation, but with a shorter tail section mounted with maneuvering thrusters, and the two turbofan systems replaced by glowing, horizontal ion thruster. Main mass accelerators flanked the cockpit, with an anti-ship ion gun and a sizable array of missiles mounted on the gunship's keel.

"Get us within a kilometer of the starboard side of the ship, as close to the hull as you can manage," Shepard ordered. "Cover us with a thruster burn when we launch."

"You'll be right in our heat wake," Joker advised. "Might get a bit crispy, ma'am."

"We can take it," Shepard replied, and he nodded.

"Aye aye ma'am."

"Got a course locked in," called Pressly over the whip's internal comm, and a marker appeared on the Prothean ship along with multiple angles to approach it. Joker slid into one of the trajectories he indicated. Warning lights flashed as two of the Blood Pack fighters launched interceptor missiles, but one of Athena Squad's Orcas picked several off and the rest were destroyed by the GARDIANs. A glance showed the lasers' heat level at only ten percent, so they would remain functional for a while.

Another Blood Pack frigate, its IFF identifying it as the Inferno, suddenly shot over the top of the Prothean hulk, two hundred and seventy kilometers out. It pivoted toward the Normandy, and Joker juked and dove while marking it as a target for the main ion battery. Inferno's main gun fired, a slug shooting wildly past the Normandy, and a heartbeat later the GDI frigate was cutting close to the Prothean's ship's hull, putting it between the two ships.

"Launch!" Joker shouted, and the hull banged again as the dropships fell away from the frigate, and then he laid on the thrusters.

A smile cut across his features as is frigate launched away from the Prothean hulk, and he spun her around with a burst of maneuvering jets. The Inferno entered the main firing arc of the ion batteries, and its gun blazed again. This time the slug hit, but only at a glancing angle., shattering off the keel shields and spinning off into space and leaving only a marginal drop in overall power.

"Now we can dance," he murmured, right as the main battery's crew fired.

The pair of Orca Carryalls jostled and weaved as they dropped away from the Normandy, and heat warnings flashed across their pilots' consoles as they dropped through the frigate's heat wake. That lasted for only a few moments, as the pilots bolted out of the heat wake and toward the Prothean wreck. The moment they cleared the emission cloud, they cut power and the dropships went silent, coasting toward the titanic wreck.

Shepard stood behind the pilot's seat, watching as they drew closer. As the dropship slowly turned, Shepard could see a bright blue beam cutting across the sky "above" them, impacting a Blood Pack ship, according to her link to the Normandy's local battlenet.

"Minimal thrust until we get close to the hull," she ordered, and the pilot nodded. The thruster wash from the Normandy would shield them from most sensors by screening their approach with a cloud of hot emissions, but there was no reason to be incautious.

Shepard turned and looked back to her team. This carryall was loaded with Lieutenant Taylor's Zone Trooper squad, who took up much of the space in the troop bay and were locked in place with crash braces due to the bulk of their armor. In addition, there were Tali'Zorah, Kal'Reegar, and Lieutenant Vega, all strapped into their crash seat. Vega was doing a final check on his Werewolf's modules, while Tali'Zorah and Kal'Reegar were conversing over a private channel.

The other Carryall was transporting the rest of the team: Garrus plus Lieutenant Alenko and his Marine squad, plus the pair of Wolverines. The dropships had enough room to carry most of them on one ship, with enough crash seats to carry both Shepard's specialists and the Marines, plus enough room to the rear to fit either the Zone Troopers or the Wolverines - plus hardpoints to deploy the Coyotes if they were doing a surface op - but Shepard had spread both the troops and the command authority across the two ships in case of the grim possibility of a Carryall being taken out.

"One minute," the pilot reported as they drew closer to the hulk. "Doesn't look like they saw us."

Shepard acknowledged. A moment later, her comm light lit up. She opened the channel.

"Do you know how we're going to get in?" Garrus asked. "Because the only way in is the same one our friends are using in the drive section. We'll have a hell of a fight through there."

"Not so sure," Shepard replied, and turned back to the ship. "There's-"

She paused, blinking, and her eyes moved over the hull. They settled on the circular launch hatches for a moment, and -


- Shepard blinked, and heard Garrus speaking in her ear.

"Sorry, Garrus, what?"

"You cut off for a moment," the turian said, and she grunted.

"Sorry. I think…." she looked toward the hatches again, and a flicker of familiarity shot through her-

A memory, of the hull on a ship of similar construction irising open, fingers sheathed in metal and vacuum seals touching something next to said hatch, while holding a glowing blue-white weapon in the other hand, other figures gathering around to retake the lost warship-

"Adjust course toward those hatches," Shepard said abruptly, and highlighted the target location on her HUD. The pilot didn't hesitate, and their trajectory changed. The other Carryall followed a moment later.

"Shepard?" Garrus asked.

"I know how to get in," she replied. "They won't see us coming, either. We'll be moving in over the hull."

"Roger that," Garrus said, and Shepard turned back toward her team.

"Vac and mag check, thirty seconds! " she ordered, and they rose, checking their seals and magnetic boots. Affirmatives sounded a few moments later. "We're going on a hull-walk, so be ready. Kal'Reegar, you're on point once we're down." While they were all zero-G certified, quarians were intimately familiar with boarding operations, especially exterior hull maneuvers.

Weapons were readied, and the Zone Troopers released from their braces, enormous Werewolves ready to fire. They lined up at the rear of the dropship, first to be out the ramp once they landed. The Zone Troopers with their heavy armor and strong shields would clear the landing zone first before the lighter infantry followed.

"Touching down now," the pilot reported, and a moment later a powerful shudder rolled through the dropship. "Magnetic seals active. We're attached. Ramp clear."

The rear doors of the dropship hissed open, and released air rushed past them. The Zone Troopers stepped out immediately, moving with long-legged, ungainly grace. Their weapons darted and swept in quick, tight arcs.

"Clear, Commander," Lieutenant Taylor called. Kal'Reegar followed, stomping down the ramp with his MAWS in hand, and Shepard, Vega, and Tali'Zorah followed suit. A dizzying starscape spread overhead, and to her right Shepard could see the massive wall of Hesano's ring reaching up and out into space. Periodic flashes and another line of brilliant blue indicated the space battle raging overhead, and warned of the urgency of their mission.

Fifty meters away, the other Orca Carryall had settled down, magnetic clamps extending from it to latch onto the Prothean hulk. Like Shepard's own, it was a long craft that resembled the old Orca gunships, with the rounded armor-glass cockpit, except it had traded the turbofans for a quartet of cylindrical thrusters that were mounted on swivels that enabled it to maintain exceptional maneuverability for such a large craft. It had an elongated belly with a rear-facing loading ramp, and a turret-mounted mass accelerator on the top to cover troops. The other Carryall lowered its ramp, and the Wolverines stormed down followed by Garrus and the Marines. The mechs were outfitted for ship-boarding actions with rapid-fire, lower-powered rotary mass accelerators and sonic grenade launchers; they'd overheat fast, but they weren't intended for sustained fire.

"Kal'Reegar, take us to the hatch," Shepard ordered. She switched to the pilot's channel as they hurried across the hull. "Hold position, power down to minimal life support. Don't move unless they spot you. If they do, get back to the Normandy."

Acknowledgements came back over the comm. As they moved across the hull, Garrus pinged her again over the officers' comm channel.

"Pulled some maps off the Cyceria's computer," he said. "Looks most of the system was wiped but they still had an internal layout of most of the ship.

"That'll be helpful," Shepard replied. "Feed it to everyone."

"Done. Looks like they explored most of it, but there's a compartment attached to the bridge that they haven't unlocked yet."

"Might be what Saren's after," Shepard guessed. "Can we contact the scientists?"

"Nothing's coming from inside the ship," Alenko replied. "The hull's blocking transmissions and I can't try to reach them without lighting up everything in-system. Might be able to establish comms once we get inside."

Several seconds later, Kal'Reegar had reached the edge of the nearest hatch, and the rest of the fireteams caught up within a few moments.

"Okay, Shepard," Kal'Reegar said. "Now where to?"

"There's a way to unlock this," Shepard said with a frown, and she started working her way around the edge of the hatch. From afar it had looked small, maybe a missile tube, but up close it was a much larger beast. At this range it was clearly a fighter tube, if not a shuttle launch tube.

Shepard watched the edge of the hatch as she walked, trying to line it up with her memory - memory which wasn't her own. After about thirty seconds, she abruptly halted and crouched, something about this position being familiar. She waved her left hand over the spot that the Tacitus-memory brought up.

Nothing happened, and she blinked in surprise. She did it again, and again nothing occurred. Shepard scowled in confusion, and glanced at her hand, and then muttered under her breath. Obviously.

She switched her Werewolf to the cybernetic left hand and waved the organic one over the familiar location.

Lights shot up around her fingers, symbols and shapes coiling around her fingers. Shepard nodded and started moving her hand through the images. She didn't understand them, but she didn't need to, not with the Tacitus-memories guiding her.

"What the hell is that?" Vega murmured, standing behind her. "You read Prothean, Sparks?"

"No," Shepard replied, concentrating.

"Oh. Some kind of passcode?"

"Protheans…." She frowned as she moved through the activation motions, putting together bits and pieces of the alien knowledge she'd gathered. "I don't think they used passcodes. Not like we do."

The memory of how to operate the system was the passcode, she realized. The Tacitus had given her the way to open this door, not just in the memory itself but in the fact that she possessed the memory. And she knew that if she hadn't been deemed suitable for carrying that information, the Tacitus wouldn't have passed it on. Shepard didn't know how she knew this, but that didn't mean she couldn't use it.

"The code is something else," Shepard said. "The Tacitus."

"You think that Prothean artifact gave you a key?" Alenko asked her, and Shepard shook her head.

"I think it made me into the key," she said.

The hull hummed beneath her, and the hatch started to split open. Shepard stood, the lights vanishing from around her, and she took up her Werewolf again. Her team gathered around the hatch as it slid apart, opening like an iris, to reveal a cold and dark tube.

Shepard crouched at the edge, peering inside.

"Keep it tight. Garrus, take your team and run parallel to us at the first branch we find. Maintain comms. Don't know what we'll find in there."

She stepped down, and took point into the Prothean wreck.

Liara fired her submachinegun blindly down the corridor. Bolts of white energy and plasma screamed back up the passage toward them, intermixed with mass accelerator fire. A body - one of her scientists, a salarian named Kallan - floated past her.

"Too many!" Wrex shouted. "Blow it!"

"Unworthy!" Grenck screamed over the gunfire, and triggered his omnitool. Explosives erupted down the passage, shredding several vorcha, pulping a Disintegrator, and annihilating a swarm of Buzzers. Those vorcha who survived fell back several steps, while the Scrin surged forward, the Buzzers reforming into a new cloud and pouring up the passage around the white-hot beams from the quadruped Scrin. Grenck detonated another set of explosives, and the Buzzers were consumed in the blast.

A krogan roar sounded over the din, and the vorcha surged forward again, firing their weapons with wild abandon.

"T'Soni!" Wrex shouted, and Liara spun out of cover. Bullets whipped past her, bouncing off his barriers, but none was concentrated enough on her to breach them. Or at least, not before the asari formed and unleashed another micro-singularity in the vorcha's path. They were yanked off their feet, screaming and flailing and firing wildly. A corona of blue fire raged around Wrex for a moment, and a discordant field of warped gravity fields crashed down around the singularity. The resulting explosion hurled the vorcha into the glassy-smooth bulkheads hard enough to powder bones and liquefy organs.

Then Grenck triggered the last set of explosives, just to make sure they got the message.

"Seal the door!" Liara shouted, and one of the remaining scientists, a battered and terrified asari, activated her omnitool. The door whispered closed, and everything went quiet. Blood and bodies floated around them, thankfully few, but that was mostly because the majority of their security and several of their science team had already died fighting.

All that remained were half of Liara's team, a couple of guards, Wrex, and Grenck. The scientists were clutching their pistols with unfamiliar hands, horror and shock battling on their faces. They had been prepared for the possibility of pirates, but this was something else altogether.

"We have to get moving," Wrex cut in as he changed out his shotgun's ammo block. "This is the last door before the bridge. We're dead if we get trapped in there."

"We're already dead," whispered one of the asari scientists.

"Then lie down and let the Scrin and Blood Pack cut your throat," he barked in response, and turned away from her toward Liara. She sighed and nodded in agreement.

"We don't have the firepower or numbers, Wrex," Liara said, pushing herself to her feet. "Not to try a breakout."

"No," Wrex said with a shake of his head. "But hiding on the bridge will trap us. I'm not going to be dug out of a hole."

"Where are we going to go even if we attack?" Liara hissed, stepping up beside Wrex. "They're roaming these hallways. They have control of our ship. A cruiser is sitting outside ready to shoot us to pieces!" She shook her head. "The only hope is to hold out as long as we can until rescue arrives."

"Cowering in a corner, waiting to die," Wrex snarled, and shook his head. "That's not how a krogan dies, T'Soni. Not how any warrior should die." He turned back toward the door, eyes narrowing.

She understood, at least academically. Wrex's instincts told him to advance. Not in a mindless charge - he was too old for that, too level-headed - but krogan met their adversaries head on. Tuchanka had bred them to fight instead of flee, to tear out a foe's throat from the inside if they couldn't cut it from the outside. A krogan would rather turn off his shields and charge into a hail of bullets than hide and fall in a last, desperate stand.

But she would need Wrex's skill and durability if they were to hold out for rescue.

"Then go and get killed for the sake of your idiot pride," she muttered. "I won't send the rest of my people to their deaths trying to attack them."

Wrex's eyes narrowed, and he shifted toward her a step, but Liara didn't back down. Instead, she let her biotics flare up, sheathing her in blue light.

"We might catch them off-guard," she said. "We could destroy one of their squads. But the rest would surround us. They'd cut us off, flank us, and kill us in minutes." She leaned forward, and her blue forehead nearly met his bloody-colored crest. "Our only hope of surviving is to wait for rescue. Retreat to the bridge, fortify it, and kill anything that comes up the passage."

Liara found her heart pounding as she stared into Wrex's eyes, his breath washing over her. The krogan glared back with all the weight of his millennia of experience - literally an order of magnitude older than her - and he snarled.

But he was thinking.

"And I will not send my people into that. Not to make you feel better about your death, Wrex," she muttered.

He stared at her for several long, intense heartbeats, and let out a low, dangerous growl.

And then he took a step back.

"Got a quad, T'Soni," he muttered. "Fine. We'll do it your way." He spun toward the remnants of the security detail. "Get the wounded back to the bridge! I want every weapons and drop of medigel ready to go! Grenck, work your magic. I want every square meter of this corridor ready to blow. Don't spare the omni-gel. You too, Bolli and Gladintius! You got any explosives, get 'em set up!"

"What about me, sir?" asked another guard.

"Carmine? Huh. I thought you were dead. Again. You do the same."

Liara moved to join the scientists as they started moving, galvanized by Wrex's words and her act of staring him down. She used her biotics to start lifting the injured and get them started down the hallway.

They didn't have much time, and soon, they wouldn't be able to retreat any further.

The Normandy's twinned ion cannon hit the Inferno dead center. The old frigate had been upgraded to close-to-modern standards, but it didn't have the cyclonic shields that the Citadel were refitting their ships with. The blue-white stream of high-energy ions impacted the kinetic barriers, diffusing on contact and scattering, losing much of their energy.

But not all of it. And the two beams linked together meant a ruinous amount of energy sprayed through the shield. Hull plates boiled, and two GARDIAN batteries were melted. Every sensor on the port and dorsal sides of the ship were burned away, and the beams cut into the upper deck, blasting open compartments and vaporizing crew. Atmosphere exploded out of the ship, and those not killed by the heat or debris blasted by the impact were hurled out into space before emergency kinetic barriers could seal the breach.

The Inferno's path twisted, the frigate rotating from the violence of the impact, and it began to fly in a spiraling, out-of-control path away from the field of engagement. Given a few minutes, the ship's crew might have transferred enough systems control and done enough proper damage control to get the frigate back into the fight.

Normandy roared past, cutting along "above" the Blood Pack frigate, Joker keeping his frigate spiraling along the same facing as the enemy frigate's damaged laser batteries. The Normandy closed within point-defense range, and the GARDIANs fired upon the stricken ship. Lasers cut into the hull along the damaged command deck, tearing open new holes. One beam slashed through the frigate's cockpit, while another drove even deeper, slicing through crew decks and penetrating all the way to engineering. Power conduits were cut, and emergency containment activated to prevent a catastrophe in the reactor chamber.

The pilot dead, the command deck ablaze, and power cut to much of the ship, the Inferno's out-of-control path became irreversible. Some escape pods launched. More debris flew from the ship in wild trajectories, much of it molten.

The Normandy peeled away, a fierce grin on her pilot's face.

"One down," Joker muttered. "Hey, Pressly, you think we got their attention?"

Mass accelerator rounds hit the Normandy's aft shield, dropping it substantially, and Joker sent the ship into a quick series of evasive jukes and turns.

"Well," Pressly replied from the CIC. "They definitely want us dead now!"

"You think?" Joker replied as he adjusted course. The remaining three frigates were swooping in on intercept courses, their main batteries blasting as fast as they could. "I guess they only kind of wanted us dead before. They were on the fence about it? 'Hey, Commander McAsshole, do you want to kill those humans over there?' "I don't know, Commander Dickhead, let's have a vote on it over tea and crumpets.'"

The Normandy's EVA flashed a warning that the Warscream had maneuvered to put the GDI frigate in its firing arc and was working a targeting solution. Joker cut himself short and flipped the frigate around, gunning the engines and aiming to put the Prothean hulk between their ship and the Blood Pack cruiser. The much smaller enemy frigates, however, kept a close pursuit, easily swinging around the dreadnought's wreckage to keep the Normandy in their sights.

"Pressly! Need some options here!" Joker called. The Normandy was tough, but sustained fire from the enemy ships would tear her apart. And with the enemy this close, their stealth systems were entirely ineffective; image recognition software would spot them without any trouble.

"Burn toward the ring!" Pressly ordered. "We can break sensor lock and engage to stealth systems!"

Joker whipped the Normandy around hard, pouring power into the thrusters. The Blood Pack ships came about to pursue, but they didn't have the kind of engineering or specs to quite match the Normandy. For all its mass, the Tantalus Drive gave the GDI frigate much greater maneuverability than the older enemy ships, not to mention its crew - and especially her pilot, if you asked Joker - were far superior to the Blood Pack's. Normandy was able to put significant distance between them, and was halfway to the rings before the trio of frigates were able to retarget her.

Joker shifted shield strength toward the rear arc and pulled up a comm channel with Athena, whose Orcas were all over the skies fighting their opponents.

"Athena Lead, how you doin' out there?" he called.

"Two enemy kills confirmed," Telfair replied, her voice strained. "Confirm that these are Void Devils rejects. Decen-t" A burst of gunfire cut her off. "-decent fliers for vorcha, but not good enough and way too aggressive for their own sakes. No casualties on our end."

"Normandy's dropping toward the Hesano ring," Joker said. "Think you can give us a hand once you've taken the trash out?"

"Can't handle three junkers disguised as frigates, huh?" she asked.

"Hey, I'm not the one having trouble taking out a bunch of vorcha," Joker said.

"Oh, that's low, Jeff," Telfair growled. "Yeah, we'll have your back. Hope you have a plan for that cruiser, though, 'cause their GARDIAN is going to rip us apart if we attack it head-on."

"Pressly will figure something out. Won't you?" Joker called.

"Just deal with those frigates, then we'll take care of that cruiser," the navigator replied. "Somehow."

Shepard found the wreck's empty passages disconcerting. The Prothean corridors were stark and clear, dimly lit by LEDs that the science team had set every ten meters or so. The bulkheads and doors were all of an industrial gray, but they were polished enough to brilliantly reflect light. Most disconcerting, though, was that every few steps a false memory made Shepard see blurred figures in angular armor walking the corridors. It was happening often enough that she was no longer paying attention to it. She had Vega taking point with Kal'Reegar right beside him, however, so she wouldn't be distracted.

"Bravo team," Garrus murmured over the comm. "No contacts yet. Nothing on my scopes."

"Copy that. Nothing on our end either," Shepard replied. She frowned. "Stay alert. These Prothean alloys are making sensor scans hard."

"Confirm that," Garrus added. "Not even the Wolverine sensor suites are picking up anything. At least the maps are consistent."

Vega passed through another door, the portal sliding open. Nothing emerged from that darkened corridor either. They moved toward an intersection, which Shepard suspected led to living quarters and the main corridor running through the ship, and as they paused to check the side passages - all clear - the comm interface on Shepard's HUD blinked, indicating it was getting a signal. She ordered a halt with a raised fist, and checked the signal.

It was an intermittent one, an automated series of distress comms from someone's suit. It wasn't encrypted Blood Pack communications, she quickly realized. Shepard isolated that band and checked for any other signals on that band, and was rewarded with a weak, unencrypted transmission from someone's comm network. She pinged it, and spoke.

"This is Commander Shepard, GDI Navy. Does anyone read me? Respond."

A pause. She started to repeat when a female voice spoke abruptly, the transmission filled with static but the words audible.

"-T'Soni, please repeat!"

"Doctor T'Soni, this is Commander Shepard, GDI Navy, responding to your distress call."

"Thank the Goddess," the asari said, with that distinct burst of shocked and hopeful elation. "I knew help was coming!"

"Where are you now?" Shepard asked.

"Main bridge," T'Soni replied. "We're safe for now, but the Scrin and Blood Pack will break through any moment."

Shepard froze, and her heartbeat redoubled.

"Repeat that: Scrin? There are Scrin on the ship?"

Everyone around her looked up at that single word, and she heard Tali murmur something under her breath.

"Limited numbers," T'Soni said. "Most of the enemy are Blood Pack. Krogan and vorcha. I don't know-"

Any further words were cut off as a doorway down the hall abruptly opened, and a dozen vorcha charged through, followed by a pair of krogan. They came to an abrupt halt when they saw the GDI troops in front of them - GDI troops they had no idea had even boarded the ship

There was a brief, startled heartbeat where no one - krogan, vorcha, quarian, or human - moved, instead staring at one another in mutual confusion.

"'Sup guys," Vega said, before shattering the moment by shooting one of the vorcha in the face.

Then the killing began.

The second GDI squad was moving roughly parallel to Shepard's team, and were approaching a T-junction, one end splitting off toward the remnants of the wreck's engineering decks and medical wing, and the other to starboard fire control - at least as far as the Serrice University team had been able to determine. Garrus took point, Lieutenant Alenko just behind him, with the Wolverines following and the Marines in the rear. Eight infantry and two mechs charging down a passage with deadly intent made a hell of a lot of noise, so Garrus was ready and had his eyes on his suit's sensors.

Thus, when Garrus' HUD gave him a warning that Shepard's team were engaged a heartbeat after Vega fired his first shots, the turian already had the maps of the Prothean dreadnought up and ready. He picked out a route through corridors and chambers to flank the enemy contact markers that were being fed to him. And just as he started to issue orders, his sensors picked up a new set of contacts emerging through the doors ahead, moving from the fire control section back toward engineering and the medical section.

They came to a halt almost immediately, still around the corner, and Garrus counted their numbers with a practiced eye: enough element zero masses to account for a dozen mixed small arms, plus enough larger power sources and eezo masses for several heavy hardsuits. Mass and thermal signatures of a large group of vorcha and several krogan. Faint, barely noticeable EM signatures matching the odd radiation markers for Scrin.

"Ready grenades!" Garrus shouted, and he heard the pair of Marines behind him with smart-grenade launchers deploying them from their Werewolves. At the same moment, he heard a shout from the other side, a krogan bellow, and his sensors picked up projectiles flying toward the intersection. Mass, EM profile, and shape were analyzed in-flight.

"Stunners!" Alenko shouted, beating Garrus by a heartbeat. "Down and harden!"

The words had barely escaped before the grenades flew into the intersection. Bursts of static washed over Garrus' HUD, momentarily blinding him, along with a sharp squeal from his radio before the suit squelched it. His sensors cut out as well, and Garrus also heard the faint echoes and ringing of tremendous noise and his visor darkened automatically to shut out the flash from the grenades.

Garrus reacted immediately, throwing himself to the ground, and he felt the impact beside him as Alenko did the same. Over the ringing in his ears, the Spectre heard the mutant beside him bellow a command, while through the static Garrus caught sight of blurry, distorted shapes storming around the intersection.

"Blindfire, our twelve!" Alenko shouted.

And the noise in Garrus' ears was drowned out as the Wolverines filled the air with a sandstorm of hypervelocity rounds.

The audible assault was brutal and encompassing. Four heavy rotary mass accelerators unloaded, each barrel spinning into place for three seconds, firing until it nearly overheated, and spinning away to cool while the next unloaded. Both Wolverines' side-mounted grenade launchers fired as fast as they could, sending several microgrenades per second to join the thousands of grain-sized hypervelocity rounds each mech fired. Garrus lay prone, letting the noise and violence wash over him as his suit's scrambled sensors rebooted and his HUD cleared, and he raised his own marksman carbine. Behind him, the other GDI Marines were also firing, sending a tidal wave of smaller-caliber bullets down the corridor, intermixed with their own sonic grenades that impacted with white flashes of body-liquefying noise.

The insane barrage of blind annihilation served its purpose. Garrus couldn't tell how many vorcha, krogan, or Scrin they had killed as they charged around the corner, but the blind tidal wave of bullets and grenades had slaughtered everything that tried, spreading scorched and bloody meat, crystal gore, and broken armor across the pristine Prothean corridor. It also kept the enemy survivors back until the GDI troops' electronics could recover. A comm-light from one of the Wolverines lit up several seconds into the blindfire.

"At fifty-percent heat sir," said Sergeant Bornell, the higher-ranking of the two Wolverine operators.

"Copy that," Garrus replied. The Wolverines would overheat in a couple of seconds, making them less effective at clearing. "Launch grenades around the corner on my mark! Marines, storm that corner, Wolverines, opposite corner and shield us. Mark!"

The two Marine grenadiers opened fire, their munitions arcing over and around the corner. At the same time, both Garrus and Alenko leapt up, the Wolverines went silent, and the combined force surged up and charged down corridor. Alenko reached the corner first, just as the grenades went off, and a glassy howl of fury and pain sounded. Garrus was right behind him, and they rounded the corner together.

Blood, the red of vorcha, orange of krogan, and silver of Scrin, was spread liberally on the walls and floor where the grenades had struck home. The shredded remains of another couple of vorcha and a pair of Disintegrators lay scattered, and a battered, bleeding krogan was recoiling from the detonation. Garrus spotted other movement: a looming Intruder, a pair of other krogan, some vorcha survivors. His rifle tracked toward the nearest threat in his firing arc, a krogan starting a charge, roaring and raising a shotgun. The krogan's shields were disabled by the grenades, and it took a single shot from the carbine to blow his head apart. Garrus saw and felt a mass effect field rise up around the surviving Intruder, yanking it off his feet, and then the Spectre was stepping aside with the unthinking muscle memory of years of training and experience in room-clearing.

Orange viscera bounced off his shields and armor, and he kept firing, splitting open another krogan's skull. The rest of the GDI Marines were piling around the corner, the Wolverines behind them and preventing potential crossfire into their backs.

The Blood Pack and Scrin didn't get a chance to recover from the grenades. Seven Marines and a Spectre unloaded into them at nearly point-blank range. Vorcha flew apart, krogan were blasted off their feet and pummeled before they could start healing or raging, and the Intruder was blasted into free-floating crystalline slurry.

It was over in seconds.

Victory through superior firepower.

The first group didn't last long. The krogan didn't even fire on Shepard's team, instead falling back through the doorway while the vorcha served their role as ablative meat shields. It took only a couple of seconds to cut down the vorcha soldiers, and by that time the krogan had locked the door behind them when they were clear. That made Shepard pause.

How… un-krogan-like.

But the door opened as soon as she approached it with the rest of her team, and they piled through. They followed flickers of krogan contact down the next couple of passages, but they didn't stop to fight, instead continuing to retreat into a larger room. The GDI troops gathered outside the door and carefully opened it, entering a cavernous chamber.

From the scientists' description, they had suspected that this room was a large medical wing for the ship's crew and soldiers. When the door opened, Shepard knew where they really were.

An augmentation facility.

One side of the darkened room contained lines of vertical cylinders large enough for a human-sized figure, along with enormous tanks and pods lined in armor-glass. They looked at first glance like stasis pods, and they were after a fact, but Shepard knew simply by glancing at them that there was more to them. Her instincts told her they weren't devices of healing. They were devices where people died and were reconstructed. Coffins that built a corpse into something more.

And a revulsion, unlike anything she had imagined, lanced through her, bile starting to push up into her throat.

On the other side of the room were doors leading to offices, medical examination chambers, and intensive care wards. In the center were line after line of elongated slabs, which she knew were operating beds, with cylinders hanging down from the ceiling. Shepard knew that these would split apart to reveal a vast array of tools to cut, split, and amputate flesh and rebuild it with augmentations. And that realization sent another wave of antipathy through her.

"Commander?" Tali murmured next to her, and Shepard blinked. She glanced to the quarian girl, who was staring back at her. None of the others seemed to have noticed her, instead moving into the room, checking it for the krogan who had retreated through here. They were picking up faint EM markers that indicated nearby Scrin, but nothing was moving on their sensors.

"I'm okay," Shepard said, with a quick nod. Of course the humans hadn't noticed her lapse. Quarians knew body language better than anyone else, though, especially through hardsuits. They had seen her response.

"Didn't look okay, ma'am," Kal'Reegar commented, standing between Tali and the rest of the room. "You saw something wrong."

"It wasn't me," Shepard said, starting across the room. "This part of the ship. They were augmenting Protheans here. But something about that… The Tacitus didn't like it."

Tali and Kal'Reegar glanced at one another, but said nothing else. They instead moved across the medical bay, following Shepard. She moved quickly, clearing her head by checking the side chambers.

Nothing. Where was that Scrin reading coming from? Somewhere outside this room, maybe?

"Never seen krogan retreat before," Jacob murmured over the comm, and Shepard sent an affirmative.

"These krogan are smarter than usual," Vega added. "Tactical."

Shepard started to speak, but then paused, turning back toward the rear of the room. Memories, real ones, bubbled up, and she froze. She remembered something similar from Akuze.

And then she noticed the faint EM signatures were now coming from directly overhead.

"Squad, ambush," she breathed. "Ceiling."

She snapped her Werewolf straight up, and the rest of the Zone Troopers and her own fireteam followed suit.

Four Intruders were clinging motionless to the overhead bulkheads amid the dim spaces between the augmentation cylinders. The moment the weapons tracked up toward them, they dropped straight down, the claws on the tips of their fingers glowing white-hot. At the same moment, the door on the far end of the room flew open and a quartet of krogan burst into the room, leveling heavy shotguns with glowing blue components.

And then two Ravagers slammed to the deck beside the Intruders.

Lieutenant James Vega had never fought the Scrin. Sure, he'd run sims, based on both the old versions from the Third Tiberium War, and some of the newer ones from the Akuze, GDI Embassy, and Eden Prime data, but never face-to-face with the real thing. One never knew how one would handle combat with an unknown foe until the blood started pumping and the bullets started flying, coupled with the twin realization that someone was really trying to kill you and someone was trying to kill the men and women next to you.

So when a Ravager the size of a small car touched down beside him, its tiberium crystals gleaming in the dim light and reflecting off armor and physiology that could tank a dozen sonic grenades, James Vega did what came naturally.

He kicked that pendejo in the face hard enough to crack its eye, and then shoulder checked it into one of the big medical slab-tables. Vega then leapt atop the Scrin monster and shoved his Werewolf into its face, shotgun module armed, and began pulling the trigger.

The rest of the room was wrapped up in instantaneous chaos. The Intruders and the other Ravager were leaping to the attack, although two of the former were already being blasted by a torrent of heavy weapons fire. One of the Zone Troopers was grappling with an Intruder, screaming as the creature's claws melted into his arms. The krogan were storming into the room, two accelerating at full charge while the others were raising their new, glowing weapons. Two enormous burst of white fire screamed out from the heavy weapons, slamming into one of the Zone Troopers. The first blast hit the Trooper's shields, heat bleeding into and scorching the armor. The second hit the soldier across his right flank, consuming his Werewolf and right arm in a flash of brilliant heat.

All of this was on James' peripheral. The Ravager beneath him was bucking and twisting violently, but for all its size, Vega was almost as strong and had better leverage. Or he guessed he had; he'd never wrestled a spike-firing alien quadruped with tiberium-based physiology, but the Scrin couldn't dislodge the crazy human mutant who was shooting it in the eyes. Silver gore splattered from the thing's head, and he shoved his Werewolf inside the plating, blasting over and over until the shotgun overheated.

"Hey, asshole!" Vega shouted as his shotgun cycled to an assault rifle. "Why aren't you dead yet?"

The Ravager responded by whipping around, screeching a glassy howl of fury and pain, and then it fell on its side as Vega sent several bursts through the gaping wound. For a heartbeat he thought he'd killed it, but the Scrin instead rolled across the floor, trying to crush him underneath its bulk. There was a flash of light as the Ravager rolled and bucked, and one of the beast's legs went flying off. It twisted, screaming, and a Zone Trooper leapt into the Ravager's stomach. His Werewolf was venting steam from an overheat, and an electric-blue, transparent blade flared over the Trooper's left arm. The power-armored figure drove the omniblade into the Ravager's stomach, and smoking silver blood erupted from the wound.

One of the Scrin's legs whipped around, hitting the Trooper in the chest and sending him flying back. But it had distracted the frenzied Scrin war-construct long enough for Vega to cycle to his cooled shotgun again. He squeezed the trigger, and saw a spray of liquid glass flying into the air as the gun's flechettes penetrated. With a snarl of mangled Spanish, Vega twisted the shotgun in the wound and kept firing.

He'd seen the images from the Embassy attack, of GDI Marines impaled to walls and floors by tiberium spikes. If it got loose, it would start killing with those same spikes.

A krogan corpse hit the floor beside him, a neat, first-sized hole burned in it by an ion blast. Vega ignored it and kept firing. The other Ravager screamed and stumbled, the steady, savage pounding of a MAWS beating it back until multiple shotgun and grenade blasts could finish it off. Vega ignored it and kept firing. An Intruder fell to the deck a few meters away, and a shotgun blast tore out its guts. Vega ignored it and kept firing.

The Ravager he was grappling went still, and its muscles slowly relaxed. Silence filled the chamber, save for a few groans of pain. Vega grunted and pushed the corpse off, and found a quarian hand reaching for him. He nodded to Kal'Reegar, and accepted his help to his feet. The quarian marine's MAWS was held up in his other hand. Vega glanced around the room.

Scrin and krogan bodies were scattered about, and three of their Zone Troopers had been downed. Sergeant Henning was staked to a wall by the other Ravager's spikes, Corporal Grizzelli had been rent open by Intruder claws, and the Corporal Nagrai had one arm completely burnt off by those new krogan guns. Lieutenant Taylor was helping that Nagrai back to his feet. None of the quarians were hurt, nor was the Commander. Shepard was standing over one of the fallen krogan, shaking orange blood off her left arm, the alien's helmet punched inward. Her head moved back and forth, checking the room and likely everyone's vitals.

There was a slight droop to her shoulders for a moment, before they straightened again. She turned toward the wounded Zone Trooper.

"Corporal Nagrai, can you fight?" she said, and the injured trooper nodded behind his visor. He grabbed a fallen heavy Werewolf in his intact hand.

"Yes, ma'am," he said, standing straight. "As long as the painkillers hold out."

"Cover our backs," Shepard ordered. "Taylor, Vega, police those new krogan guns. InOps will want them." Her head twitched toward the fallen as Vega did as ordered, grabbing one of the heavy shotgun-like weapons. It dimmed as he picked it up, and smoke rose from one end.

"Looks like its got some kind of self-destruct," Vega said, carefully handling the weapon. He saw no energy surges or anything that looked explosive when he scanned it with his omnitool.

Behind him, he heard Shepard sigh quietly, and turned back to glance at her. Vega knew she was recording a confirmation of death of the other two Troopers. It was impractical to carry dog tags when one was in power armor, after all. She finally turned away from the dead, her omnitool flickering for a moment as she triggered an order.

A moment later, smoke began to rise from the seams of the dead Troopers' armor as the recovery protocols initiated. They couldn't carry the dead home, so vital components were being slagged. Nothing would be left for the enemy to salvage.

"Let's move out," Shepard barked, and Vega nodded. He secured the disabled krogan weapon to his armor's back hardpoint and took point, Werewolf up and ready.

The bridge corridor was a charnel house, helped by local artificial gravity in this section, which meant all the corpses were piling up into rudimentary cover for the attackers. Wrex and one last guard - good old Carmine, still alive somehow - plus the surviving scientists, Liara, and Grenck, were keeping it locked down as best they could. The Blood Pack were still pouring up the passage, the vorcha in a savage frenzy and the krogan right behind them. Blasts of white-hot fury lanced up the corridor, burning into the walls but unable to do more than scratch the Protheans' stark mirror-finish walls.

"Last surprise for you!" Grenck screamed over the din, and detonated his last set of explosives. The hallway shook, and vorcha and krogan died, launched back down the corridor in pieces.

There was a moment of silence as the Blood Pack retreated, their ranks disorganized and bloodied. The defenders took a moment to recover as well; medigel was applied, drinks of water were taken, and ammo blocks were checked.

"Lot of krogan," Wrex muttered, checking around the corner again. At least two dozen of his kin lay among the fifty or so vorcha and a near equal number of Disintegrators and maybe a dozen or so Intruders. There was even a Ravager in the pile of bodies. Grenck's explosives were pretty damned effective. "Last time I saw wave attacks like that with krogan were during the Rebellions."

"What does it mean?" Liara asked, crouching beside him and nursing a bad wound in her right arm. Nothing medigel couldn't fix, but still an ugly one.

"Either they've got a lot of krogan or they're desperate," Wrex mused. He glanced back at their own wounded. Several science personnel and a couple of surviving but critically-wounded guards were hidden behind the bridge consoles. The room was your typical cold, stark Prothean architecture. Nothing but that reflective finish and bridge consoles built in lines surrounding a central hologram and what might have been projectors for screens on the walls. Two doors led off from the room: one to the corridor they guarded, and a side door to that sealed room T'Soni couldn't figure out how to get into.

"Krogan try not to waste their own kind," he added. "Tactical efficiency. Battlemasters want to keep krogan alive if possible because we can't afford to lose too many whelps. Its why they use vorcha for wave attacks now. Wyrlock chiefs wouldn't be hurling krogan into a meatgrinder like this unless they had the numbers to spare or they really wanted what was in this room…."

"We just have to hold on until GDI troops get here," Liara said, and Wrex nodded.

"Yeah," and he gestured down the hall with his rifle. "You don't think that they don't know that too?"

Liara stared back for a moment, her lips pressing together in a grim expression that translated well across species.

"They'll hit us with everything," she whispered. "And put on even more pressure the closer GDI gets to us."

"Exactly," Wrex said. He looked down the passage again, and spotted more movement. "Brace yourself. Here they come."

She nodded, and her biotics flared up again, surrounding her with that ass-kicking glow he liked to see. Wrex set his feet, grinned, and had his rifle up and firing when the vorcha came at them once again.

Kruge was a patient krogan.

"One frigate!" he roared, gripping the neck of one of his non-krogan officers. "One group of poorly-equipped scientists!" He lifted the choking salarian up into the air and hurled him across the bridge. "How have you not killed them yet and brought me T'Soni?"

After all, he hadn't killed his gunnery officer.

"Captain, we are narrowing down the hiding places for the GDS Normandy," reported his sensor tech, an asari who was being very careful to stay out of reach. "There's only so many places they can hide without being spotted by visual scans in those rings."

"Keep it boxed in," Kruge ordered. "Have image recognition sensors ready to pick it out the moment it emerges. Manuever the Warscream so that we can fire the moment we have a visual."

"Aye, sir," the cruiser's pilot replied.

"And rescind my previous order regarding caution to the boarding teams," Kruge added. "Destroy those GDI troops and take that damned bridge immediately!"

He paced back and forth across the bridge, keeping his rage under control. Bridge crew kept out of reach, which was very good. Medics were tending to the salarian he'd made an example of, which was better. Everyone was stepping faster and more efficiently after his display of limited rage.

But again, the only thing on the bridge that was unperturbed by current events was the Scrin creature looming behind him.

A tickling sensation touched the back of his mind, and he halted. Dammit.

variables - unpredicted

Well, yeah. They hadn't expected GDI of all things to get involved.

query: reinforcements

Kruge exhaled. No. Not yet. They could handle this without any backup.

Uncertainty: deception - self - potential: destruction - Advisory: pride - disregard: objective is priority

"I know," he growled quietly. The Blood Pack's alliance with Saren had its drawbacks, and not just in having this alien thing in his thoughts.

Kruge turned back toward his minder, and glared at it. Several seconds passed, and then the Mastermind slowly shifted its bulk, a slight movement of its legs and center of gravity to bring its gemstone eyes to meet his.

command: remains for PrimeUnit Kruge - advisory: maintain command

"Or?" he asked, refusing to be intimidated.

response: open-ended

A chill ran down Kruge's myriad organs, and he slowly turned away. Not that he would show this thing the sliver of anxiety that had wormed its way in with his annoyance and anger. He had a mission to complete.

"Stop annoying me," he muttered. "Let me end this."

The Mastermind's ensuing silence was a deep relief.

Joker's hands hovered, tense and ready. Asteroids and dust that formed the rings of Hesano drifted past, millions of bits of rock ranging from grains of sand to chunks the size of dreadnoughts.

"Joker," Telfair's voice murmured faintly in his ear.

"I see it," he muttered, marking the target. She couldn't hear him; the Normandy had gone totally silent, only receiving point-to-point telemetry from the other Orcas. They had shot down the remaining Harrier fighters with minimal damage but couldn't get close to the frigates without drawing far too much GARDIAN fire.

What he and Telfair both saw was the frigate Gutbleeder, looking for round two as it and the other two Blood Pack ships - Manticore and Heedless - hunted back and forth over the area they'd last spotted the Normandy in. Gutbleeder, however, was very close to spotting the Normandy visually. They were having trouble, of course, because he'd parked the frigate behind an asteroid and activated the IES stealth system.

"It'll cross your line of sight in-"

"Ten seconds, I know," he groaned. He watched the countdown timer, and keyed the battery control team while wiping the sweat from his forehead. "Prep to fire on my mark."

Outside, the red-painted Blood Pack frigate started to pass around the rocky edge of the asteroid. Active sensor pings washed over the Normandy.

"Fire!" Joker ordered as he initiated a full burn and dropped the stealth systems. Both ion cannons roared through the frigate's superstructure, vibrating the whole vessel, and twin spears of blue fury struck the Gutbleeder amidships. The bleedthrough of high-energy ions evaporated hull plating and drove deep, slicing partially through to engineering. Fire and atmosphere exploded out of the hole ripped in her flank.

Normandy jumped forward, darting over the top of the stricken frigate, and GARDIAN batteries opened fire. Lasers carved through fatigued hull plating and drove deep into the wounded frigate. They cut into the core reactor, slicing cables and control systems and piercing the main reactor itself. Fire burst out of the ship, and it ceased maneuvering, momentum carrying it on an out of control tumble through the rings. A few moments later the Blood Pack frigate crashed into an asteroid nearly as big as itself, and broke in half amidships.

"That's two!" Joker shouted as he began weaving among the rings, and he heard cheers behind him from the rest of the crew.

"The other two are closing in," Pressly reported a moment later.

"I see 'em," Joker replied, and he plotted a careful but swift course through the asteroids. He highlighted the Heedless and had the EVA work up a targeting solution. The enemy frigates were already firing, mass accelerator slugs ripping past the Normandy but unable to hit the agile ship amid the asteroids.

"The cruiser is trying to get a lock on us too," Pressly reported, and Joker nodded. His eyes weaved through the field of rocks orbiting Hesano, and he picked out a path. A twitch here, and adjustment there, and-

"Guns are charged," came a call on the intercom from the firing station, and Joker flipped the Normandy over. It wasn't an easy maneuver; Normandy wasn't a fighter, and more than that, it was flying through a gas giant's ring. But he wasn't an ordinary pilot, and he had already picked out the course he would need.

The Normandy's EVA finished plotted the firing solution, and Joker sent the order.

The two ships were moving at eye-watering speed, hundreds of kilometers apart, in a thick field of fast-moving asteroids. They were both trying to target each other while hundreds of rocks shot past their lines of fire every second. The Heedless' shot missed by a kilometer. The Normandy's ion cannons hit bow-on.

Ion bleedthrough slagged the bow of the Heedless, melting armor and burning into the cockpit. It slewed wildly for a moment, before starting to turn back as someone deeper in the ship took control. The frigate came about on a course leading away from the Normandy, trying to disengage long enough to repair damage.

Four Orca gunships fell on the wounded frigate like swooping eagles, missiles, ion, and mass accelerator fire raking the dorsal and aft ends of the ship. Return fire from the GARDIAN was spastic and inaccurate with the beating it had just taken from the ion cannons, and the Orcas were untouched as they tore the Heedless apart. Engines blew to pieces, missiles tore into armor and crew compartments, and a massive burst of flame lanced out of one side of the ship as something detonated deep in the frigate. The Orcas wheeled around and strafed one more time, cutting up into the frigate's keel. Debris and burst of flaming atmosphere escaped, the latter winking out immediately.

Heedless was set adrift, power systems guttering out and the ship going dead.

"One for Athena!" Telfair yelled over the comm. Joker snorted, flipping the ship back over and maneuvering toward the last frigate.

"Maybe half for you guys," he replied. "You can paint an eighth of a frigate on your hulls."

"'Scuse me, but we killed the thing," Telfair said. "But hey, I'll be generous: you get points for an assist!"

"Yeah, right, in your d-"Joker started, but paused. On his screen, the Manticore was looping around and heading back toward the Prothean wreck and the Warscream. "Hey, our buddy's going away. That's no fun."

"Yeah, its almost like we killed two other frigates in under a minute," Telfair mused.

"Form up on me, Athena," Joker said, frowning and bringing the Normandy on a general evasive maneuver that would lead it back toward the Prothean ship. The Warscream didn't bother firing at such a small, evasive target at this range, but he knew it was only because there was no way to hit something this small with a slow-firing cruiser main gun.

Taking out frigates that were underpowered compared with a beast like the Normandy was one thing. But a full-size cruiser was a different monster altogether.

"We got a bigger problem now," he said, considering how to attack something of that size. Joker's eyes moved over the heat displays. Excess heat was being vented, and he estimated that they had an hour or more in combat endurance left before the heat built up to the point that they'd have to disengage. They had time.

But Shepard and the science team might not.

A grenade flew over the top of Wrex's head as he grappled with the furious young krogan, and landed in the middle of the Blood Pack troops just outside the doors. The detonation threw the whelp off balance, and the older krogan grinned, pulsed his element zero nodes to increase his mass, and twisted. Wrex's shifting center of gravity and his massive upper body strength worked to hurl the kid off his feet and into the wall next to the doorway.

Wrex charged, and slammed into him so hard that near-unbreakable bones crunched. The young pup wheezed and slid down to the floor, out of the fight for the moment.

T'Soni had deployed another singularity in the middle of the door, and Grenck's Werewolf was roaring out burst after burst around the howling pinpoint of black. Vorcha and krogan were caught in the altered gravity field, and Grenck killed them with methodical fire. T'Soni was shooting as well, aiming at the few beyond the singularity's grip, and Wrex joined her. Blood Pack fell, bled, and died.

"Regroup!" shouted one of the krogan, and the survivors began backing away, laying down wild suppressive fire and using the corpses of their own dead to cover them.

The floating corpses flopped to the floor, suspended blood splashing across the deck, and the three standing defenders took cover again, T'Soni panting and wiping her bloodied face. Carmine was still alive, somehow, but he was in no shape to fight, what with a dozen wounds to his arms and neck from where the vorcha had tried tearing him apart when they'd crossed the threshold into the bridge.

Wrex checked his ammo again, nodded toward T'Soni, and turned toward the wounded krogan, who had pulled off his broken helmet. With his face exposed, Wrex could clearly see his youth: skin that still hadn't turned leathery with age and hardship, and a crest that hadn't grown into a solid plate yet. He lay in a puddle of his own blood, seeping out through rents in his armor, but he was still krogan, and a big, tough one at that. He kept trying to stand up, and Wrex knew he would heal up soon if he wasn't put down. The older krogan pointed his shotgun at the struggling youth's forehead.

"What clan are you, whelp?" he asked. "You don't look like Wyrlock."

"No," exhaled the wounded pup. Despite the krogan's wounds, his voice was deep and strong. "There is no clan. Only glass and the Pack."

"Tank-bred?" Wrex exhaled. That explained quite a bit. Cloning and accelerated-aging had been one suggested counter to the genophage, as the tech was certainly available. But aside from a deep-seated cultural hatred for the idea - krogan were born from wombs and eggs, not test tubes - anyone cloning a krogan army would get a nuclear response from the Council.

But Saren didn't give a damn about the Council, did he?

"Born from Glass-Mother," the youth grunted. "We sing our battle song in honor of Wyrlock and the Pack." He pushed himself almost to his feet, before Wrex kicked him back down to the floor. "To kill. Kill for our salvation."

"Salvation from what?" Wrex asked.

"The enemy that threatens us all," the youth said. "We will defeat the enemy that kills us in our eggs before we can draw weapons."

"A cure for the genophage?" Wrex said, freezing in place. He stared at the battered whelp, who shook his head.

"I don't know," he replied. "That is what was whispered in the tank."

"Wrex!" T'Soni shouted, and gunfire ripped through the doorway. "Scrin! They've got another Ravager!" He heard Grenck's laughter at that warning.

"Damn." Wrex scowled, and for a heartbeat he debated. The whelp could be a useful source of information, after all, but with the enemy approaching again...

The young krogan started to push himself back up, and Wrex ended the internal debate by pulling the trigger, blowing the whelp's head off. Couldn't leave an enemy asset at their backs. He'd just have to find whoever was in charge of Clan Wyrlock himself and beat the info out of them.

Wrex rushed back to the door, just as a tiberium spike shot past and hit one of the consoles, burying into the metal. Huh. Looked like not all of Prothean engineering was so durable after all.

He poked his head out quickly and yanked it back before the Ravager could get a shot off. The big Scrin war-construct was standing in the middle of the corridor, firing spikes into the bridge doorway while krogan, vorcha, and Disintegrators advanced up either side of the hallway. Buzzers hovered over the troops on either side but made no move to advance; a singularity from T'Soni would annihilate them instantly, which everyone had learned the quick and hard way. He didn't see any Intruders. Maybe they'd killed them all.

Dark energy gathered around Liara, and she sent another singularity into the middle of the corridor. The Ravager stood firm, even as corpses and living bodies were yanked toward the black hole. The Scrin creature kept firing, the spikes twisting in mid flight to tumble out of control, while the rest of the Blood Pack held back lest they get dragged into the maelstrom. A couple of corpses were knocked free of the field's grip by the Ravager's spikes and sent tumbling down the corridor.

Wrex fired bursts into the bodies being hurled around by the singularity, but within seconds he had no clue which were dead and which were alive. Some of the enemy were shooting back, but they had the same problem with the corpses and viscera whipping around and blocking their line of sight.

"We can't stop that Ravager," T'Soni shouted over the gunfire. Grenck hurled another flash-fabricated grenade down the passage, whooping when it blew up.

"We don't need to," Wrex said, spotting an adventurous krogan pup who was moving around the flying bodies and trying to get a clear shot. He blasted the kid off his feet with a long stream of rifle fire.

The singularity faded as the biotic field broke down, and the spinning wall of dead flesh hit the floor. Blood Pack and Scrin surged forward, howling for blood. Grenck dropped another grenade among them, killing half a dozen, but that just made them angrier. The Ravager's spikes abruptly stopped as the enemy got close.

"Brace yourself!" Wrex shouted, setting his feet and switching his rifle for a shotgun. The Blood Pack surged toward the door, ignoring the bullets tearing into some of them. He started firing his shotgun, knocking them off their feet, and saw T'Soni grit her teeth and ready another blast of biotics.

And a blue beam blew straight through the horde of Blood Pack, killing four vorcha. A second ion stream followed a heartbeat later, slaughtering two of the tank-bred krogan and another vorcha.

The Ravager whirled around, only to start jerking and twitching as chunks of armor the size of Wrex's head were blasted out by rapidly-cycling railguns. Mass accelerator rounds hammered it and tore into the Buzzers and Blood Pack troops at the rear of the formation, and the shields of a pair of krogan were shorted out by a tech mine exploding in their ranks, and the tank-bred were cut down a moment later. A warping field rippled over the Ravager, tearing at its armor, and it screamed.

Four railgun rounds blew straight through its head and sent a spray of silver viscera out its back.

The GDI squad advanced down the hallway, weapons blazing, hulking Zone Troopers flanking a mix of human and quarian Marines. Several krogan in the rear took hits but didn't fall before their bodies switched to secondary organs and the blood rage took them, and they charged the new arrivals with bone-shaking roars. Most didn't get far before they were cut down, but one thundered straight toward the smallest figure among the group.

Wrex grinned at the sight, even as he kept on killing. He recognized her.

He was a little bit surprised when she brought her left arm up, hand close to her head as if lifting an invisible shield. Then an actual shield of ragged, azure dark energy blazed up over her, and the whelp impacted it dead on with all the power of a raging krogan berserker.

He bounced off, stumbling back a step, confusion evident even through his fury, and a moment later he was knocked off his feet as the human female backhanded him hard enough to dent his helmet. She stepped forward and jammed her Werewolf into his face and held the trigger until it was blasted to orange pulp.

The rest of the Blood Pack and Scrin didn't last long, with their Ravager and most of their krogan dead. Caught in a crossfire between the defenders and the GDI reinforcements and with no cover from both, they were cut apart and joined the dead on the deck in less than a minute.

The GDI troops picked their way carefully over the piles of dead, silver and red and orange splashing on their boots regardless. They drew close to the bridge, and the lead human female nodded toward them. Wrex didn't need to guess who she was.

"Shepard," he said. She paused, maybe in surprise at the small galaxy they lived in, and nodded back.

"Wrex." Her helmet tracked toward T'Soni, who was bloody and weary but still standing and alert, especially now that rescue had finally shown up. "Doctor Liara T'Soni?"

"Correct," she said, her tone exhausted. "Thank the Goddess you arrived when you did."

"How many of your team are still alive?" Shepard asked, while one of the Zone Troopers directed the rest of the team to secure the bridge.

"Too few," Liara replied. "Most still alive are too wounded to move on their own." She stepped back into the blood-splattered bridge, and Shepard followed. She looked over the injured behind the consoles and nodded.

"We can get your people out of here," the human said. "But I also need to know what Saren wants with you."

"T'Soni, I would guess," Wrex remarked, and they both turned toward him. Liara nodded after a moment.

"That is a disturbing but likely possibility," Liara said. "They could have used much more efficient tactics if they just wanted everyone dead. They showed no hesitation to kill anyone else on the science staff either."

"Or," Grenck commented, walking past them and pointing. "The sealed chamber."

"Right, or the sealed…" Shepard trailed off. "Wait. You have a... British vorcha?"

"Sounds more like a Serrice vorcha to me, but yes," Liara replied. Grenck just chuckled.

"The only door we have not been able to open," the vorcha continued. "We have no idea what is behind it."

Shepard nodded, and walked toward the locked door. She stared at it for a moment, and her helmet unfolded, showing her scarred face. She reached up with her right hand, brushing the blank metal of the door, and her eyes narrowed.

Then every console in the bridge lit up, all at once, a surge of glowing gold and silver lights filling the air over every terminal and holographic projector.

"What-" Liara breathed, turning around in shock. "Goddess! What did you do?" she asked.

A deep hiss of working hydraulics and the thrum of mass effect fields filled the air, and the sealed door slid open.

"Not sure just yet," Shepard murmured, and stepped through the open doorway.

Codex: Non-Council Species - Scrin - Intruder

The "Intruder" is a Scrin variant encountered relatively recently. First contact with Intruder variants occurred on the human colony world of Akuze, in limited numbers. Later encounters with Reaper-18 Scrin forces would see much larger implementation of the creature type, with greater variations in morphology and armament. They are commonly deployed as a close-quarters assault unit, often spearheading urban assaults or boarding actions alongside Disintegrators and Buzzers. Prevailing theory is that the Intruder is specifically intended to fight humanoid species in their own territory following the Third Tiberium War, where human infantry proved superior to the Scrin equivalents.

Intruders are humanoid in body type, standing at anywhere from one and a half meters for smaller reconnaissance variants to two and a half meters for heavy assault versions. Despite their humanoid structure, Intruders match the typical "cellular" structure of Scrin constructs, with the fusion of soft "organic" tissue and hardened mechanical components typical of the species. There is a higher ratio of soft tissue to hardened tissue, though mostly in the appendages' muscle equivalents, with high-density musculature enabling abrupt bursts of speed extreme bursts of strength. While possessing a head section much like humanoid species, an Intruder's cognition center appears to be located deep inside the creature's armored torso. Decapitation does little more than disorient the creature briefly, and decapitated Intruders have been reported to engage and fight as normal shortly afterward, leading to suspicions that there are secondary sensory mechanisms located elsewhere in the body.

Intruder armament varies widely. The most commonly-seen weapon is an arm-mounted plasma launcher akin to a flamethrower. Other Intruder variants have been encountered wielding heavy cannons that fire a large, destructive bursts of guided plasma or rapid-fire beams similar to those fired by Disintegrators. Close-combat specialists have been encountered armed with thermal claws that can cut through most personal armor near-instantly.

Intruders appear to be relatively low-ranking among the theoretical Scrin hierarchy. They have been observed acting as command units for Disintegrators and Buzzers as well as directing Ravager units as well, while acting subordinate to Shock Troopers and Masterminds. Despite this, they are observed to be the most intelligent of the lower-ranking Scrin "infantry," employing ambush tactics, feints, and surprise flanking maneuvers where other Reaper-18 Scrin have used brute force and raw firepower.